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Interview with Robert Wrigley

Moscow, ID on November 21, 2013 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Devin Becker: Let's make this kind of official. Would you please state your name, your date of birth, and the location where we are for the camera?
Robert Wrigley: I am Robert Wrigley. I was born February 27, 1951. We are sitting in my little studio building, which is called "Stanza," one of the two Italian words—the lesser Italian word—for "room," on Moscow Mountain, not far...well, 6 miles north of Moscow, Idaho.
DB: And how long have you been writing in this spot?
RW: I built this building in 2002. So, 11 years in this space.
DB: So, here are the sort of quick and dirty questions. What genres do you work in?
RW: Poetry almost exclusively. Every now and then I'm sort forced to commit prose, like a craft lecture or something, and I've got a bunch of those that some day, people keep telling me, I should make a book out of. But mostly I'm just not interested. I'd rather write poems.
DB: What kind of devices do you own or have access to for your writing?
RW: Meaning electronic devices?
DB: Either or.
RW: Most fundamentally, of course, is the computer. I have one laptop. That's my private computer, which sometimes I compose on. Always I compose prose on the computer. I can't imagine being a prose writer and writing in long hand, but some people do. Beyond that, I have pencils and pens and note books.
DB: Okay. What's your operating system, what type of device do you use?
RW: I have a Mac. What is it, a Macbook Air? And I no longer have an external hard drive. Back when I had a PC I had an external hard drive where I backed up everything from the hard drive of the computer onto an external drive. Now, I put things into the cloud, the iCloud. I back stuff up on Mozy just to keep track. Theoretically, at least, I've never had to go retrieve anything. But, theoretically, it's "safe" out there.
DB: Yeah, that is definitely some of the questions. Do you work on a device at the university at all or is it just the one device? Do you ever move things from one device to the other?
RW: No. I try to keep what I write—the poems themselves—away from university machines, just because the university owns the machine and I really don't want anything that I own on that university machine.
DB: How do you save your pre-writing or your notes?
RW: I print off a lot of things. There's a pile of drafts back here that in fact need to be moved to a box, but I haven't brought the new box up from the house. Usually, a box will take two years to fill and then it goes into storage in the basement until somebody offers me enough money for it. And then they can have all the boxes.
DB: All the boxes. Do you save the drafts of your individual works as you go along or do you save it as one poem or do you put them all together or do you save over?
RW: I don't put them all together. It seems to me that it would probably be a good idea to do something like that, and if I were to do something like that, if someone comes along and wants my papers, they would be a lot happier if I had them organized in some way. But basically, the pile—which is not very evenly stacked—is pretty much the way they go into the box. So I will work on a poem, print off a draft, put a date on it and the number. I'm just pulling the one off the top—this is a little draft of a poem called "Goodbye to the River" which I have no memory of. But this draft was composed on the 15th of October 2013, and it's draft number two. So, I do have a sort of—
DB: So you do have a system.
RW: I do have a system. And I suppose if someone were really interested and would go through the boxes, which ultimately have a year on them—or a period of years on them if it takes me awhile to fill one—someone could go through and actually find the poems under certain title and put them in order, in the order in which they came into being. Although sometimes I change tittles, so I don't know what that does to the—
DB: The poor future researcher that has to—
RW: Well, it will keep said researcher, should he or she ever exist, busy.
DB: Yes.
RW: Well through tenure.
DB: Yeah. So you were just saying you back up your work by using a Mozy folder, which backs up your work to the server and all your poems are in one location. How do you save a work that's been published? Do you put it in a different place?
RW: I do. I have this which is sort of the in-process folder—a little "thesis binder," they're called at Harvard. In the back go all the poems that have been published with the name of the magazine on it and in front are the ones that are still in progress.
DB: This is sort of a general question. Have you ever received or sought out information about methods for kind of "best practices" for digital archiving?
RW: I never have, and probably I should. I talked to Daniel Orozco a lot who is so frightened of losing things that he backs everything up on a jump drive. I think maybe two; he uses Mozy, he uses one other backup service as well, prints things. He's anal all about it and I can't really blame him. He's a prose writer, though they lose... you lose a file there, you could lose hundreds of pages.
DB: Right. I think that was one of the interesting things we saw was that there were a lot of—not, maybe, to Orozco's extent, but—people who would do that. But then the issue becomes, for them, a lot of times, what's what and which version is which and the kind of mess of that. I mean, you think your files will be difficult, but his files will be...because there is not a date on them, there is no handwriting, there is no indication this is...it's going to be kind of like, "What?"
RW: You know how when you save something in, say, Microsoft Word? When you save it it gives you a date, but then you resave it, you modify it, you resave it and it's completely new dates, so the old date goes away. I found that I couldn't rely on that at all. I had to put a pencil date or a pen date on the corner of the draft just so I knew which was which and when was what. And I think that's important. I don't know that that's important. Whereas, in the notebook, it starts with a date and every page is dated, so I know exactly. I can go back into the notebooks, which I do with some regularity, just to sift-through and see if I missed anything. If there is some piece that I might resurrect and make use of, I know exactly when I first put it down.
DB: Ok. That was sort of the precursor, although basically the same questions are coming back, but this is going to be kind of more overarching on your practice over time. How long have you been writing professionally, in which I mean something that was sort of either your main focus or something that was supporting you financially?
RW: Really, I guess I would say since 1972, which is when I was in fact an undergraduate student. I got discharged from the army in 1971, got drafted, went back to college, and within a matter of a few months was waylaid by poetry. I didn't want to be a poet. I didn't really have a whole lot of use for poetry. I took the class on a kind of lark, thinking how hard can it be? It doesn't have go very far across the page, and from what I could tell, it doesn't have to rhyme anymore. You don't have to have any kind of regular meter. As far as I could tell, most people couldn't figure out what it meant anyway, so I can do that. I can get three credits that way. I walked into the class and I got absolutely waylaid, and that was 1972, which was 41 years ago.
DB: Where was that?
RW: Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
DB: Who was your first professor?
RW: My first poetry professor was a man by the name of Clyde Fixmer, who is still alive, pushing 80, was really kind of a failed poet. I'd never want him to hear me say that, of course, but he's published I think two or three books and they've all been self-published. He never really had the belly for the getting out into the—I don't know what else do you call it—the marketplace; the literary world. He couldn't bare rejection. And I figured out early on, and as far as I knew it for a long time, rejection was, like...that's what happened.
Although, the first poem I ever sent out got accepted. The first batch of poems I ever sent out, I got something accepted. I got, like, hooked on that part of it too. But publication, as you know, publication is not the same thing as writing. They may be almost entirely unrelated.
DB: Yes. That kind of gets us started. The next question is sort of, like, could you give a sort of general description of the arc of your career starting with this portion versus the next? Let me go push this one more time.
RW: Does it automatically take pictures? Or—
DB: No. This is recording. I'm going to do it twice. It just stops because it fills up really fast. It's a higher resolution thing, and then this one is definitely... So to get back to the sort of the general, the large arc of your career, and how that's kind of taken you through the scenes.
RW: I'm a product of the creative writing industry. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to write novels that sold a lot of copies, made me a lot of money. I wanted to live in the South of France. I'm serious about this, Devin—you have to believe me—as serious as a 21-year old could have been. I wanted drive in Aston Martin and live in the South of France and date super models; it seemed like a perfectly appropriate and maybe even attainable career goal. I was an idiot, I didn't know anything.
But then I got waylaid by poetry, and I think that I discovered or realized that whatever sort of disposition I have is suited to poetry and not so much to prose, and certainly not to fiction. I have, in fact, published a couple of short stories, years ago—25 years ago I think was the most recent one—but they never made me happy, not like writing a poem did. Anyway, I got way laid and got real keen on poetry and began haunting the library of my alma mater in the department of the skinny books.
I looked into graduate school and discovered there was this degree called Master of Fine Arts, in which there were 11 programs in the country that offered that degree in 1972, I think, and one in Canada, and applied to a number of programs, wound up going to Montana, fell in love with living in this part of the world and really have never stopped in terms of writing nor of living in this part of the world. So, I got kind of waylaid by geography and poetry simultaneously. The arc of my career aesthetically is a completely other kind of thing.
DB: This is more of just sort of like place, person, kind of general overview of where you were, what happened.
RW: When I went to Montana I got to study with Madeline DeFrees, John Hansen, and probably most famously, Richard Hugo. Dick Hugo and Madeline DeFrees, particularly, were just enormously important to me in terms of the craft of the poetry and I don't think my notion of the line is, for me, separable from what I learned from, say, Madeline DeFrees. Dick was a completely other kind of teacher, but a magnificent teacher. He could make you see what you were doing right and what you were doing wrong with a phrase. And that was a great thing.
DB: So you went from Montana and then where did you go next? It was LCSC? Or—
RW: I went back to my alma mater where I was an adjunct for a year and applied for jobs as close to Missoula, Montana as I could find. The first job that I got was down at LCSC in 1977. I was sabbatical replacement for a year, but they loved me and tried immediately make a tenure track position for me, which they offered me and I turned down, because I had an NEA and I didn't want a job. But I wound up working, teaching a couple of classes for that year and then I started tenure track on a job that was really kind of...that I held for 22 years, that was not a great job for a poet because the teaching load was 4-4 for a long time. And then, somehow, I convinced them that I should have a 3-3 load, and then, ultimately, Kim and I split the job and each taught 2-2. And that was fine. That was great. But then the position opened up here, and the only other place I was really interested or would have been interested in going would have been Montana. But I love Moscow and I love Idaho, and I have been there for a long time. So when this job came along, I snapped it up.
DB: In what year was that?
RW: 1999 was my first year at U of I.
DB: How long had the MFA program been here?
RW: I think it was three years old then. I think ‘96 was the first year they admitted students, maybe ‘97. I can't remember now. So it's still a pretty young program, really.
DB: You have been here for...?
RW: For most of it.
DB: Most of it, yeah. So, you've been here since then, basically in the same position, same job, and over this time you've written... Can you kind of talk about... You've written, like, seven books?
RW: Let's see—‘99, the year I was hired, I published Reign of Snakes. The year I was hired here, I published Reign of Snakes. So, since Reign of Snakes, although it was written while I was teaching at LC, I've published Reign of Snakes, Lives of the Animals, Earthly Meditations, Beautiful Country and now Anatomy of Melancholy. Five books since I've been at U of I.
DB: Okay. That's sort of the general overview, and then I'd like to kind of start about your writing process, generally. I've got it kind of broken into three portions; one being kind of the compositional spot, like pre-writing, notes, kind of the development of the work into its first draft. And then the next being sort of revisional, like "How do you revise?," etcetera. We'll talk, and that will be kind of the next thing. And then the third process being the organizational archival. If that doesn't make sense with your writing process, we can talk about it differently. That's just how I've them set up here.
RW: We'll see how it goes. It sounds fine to me.
DB: Okay. So when you first started writing, when you were first, maybe, in Montana, and in the first stages of your career, how did go about writing a poem? How did you get the idea? How did you pre-write? Did you draft, etcetera? That's sort of my first question.
RW: I've always—and I don't know where—I have piles of them... These little fellows, these Moleskine. However one pronounces that, I can never tell. I probably have 250 of these piled somewhere. I think they're in a box in the house, and they're just the places where, when I get an idea or an image occurs to me, or a phrase, or I see some phrase, I make a note. I make that first note, so that when I come out here or wherever I go, wherever it was I was happily doing the writing, anywhere along the way, which is sometimes at a kitchen table, you never knew... Back years ago, I didn't have a space to write it.
I had this, one of the most recent couple of these, to just consult, just to sort of trip on the switch. Sometimes though, you exhaust those things or nothing in the little notebook interests me, so I just come out, and that's why there is this pile of books here on the futon. They were all books I've pulled down—well, there's a little pile that I brought back from Italy. Not Italy; England. I'll just come out and I'll look at the shelves and pull a book off the shelves, almost at random. Sometimes I have no idea what book it is I'm reaching for, it's just something about the color that will appeal to me and I'll open it up, thumb through it, look for a poem or look for a word, a title, a phrase—anything that just turns on a switch that just gets me started. Mostly it has always seemed to me that the only way I can get started is to just start putting words on paper, so that's what when I turn to this notebook. It seems far less effective to me to sit down at the computer and try to begin composing when I don't have anything in particular on my mind. Whereas in the notebook itself, I can doodle. I can write a phrase. I can just sort of noodle around, you know, the way a musician would noodle around with a musical phrase, to see where it leads me. I've always believed that writing begets writing. The more I noodle around, something eventually is going to interest me. Something eventually is going to find a way to connect with the next thing, the next word, the next phrase, or a kind of move toward an idea. I hate using the word "idea," though, talking about poems, because people always ask things like—and they tend to be people who have never really written before, or who are at the beginning of trying to write—they'll say, "Where do you get your ideas for poems?" I always want to say, "What ideas? Where?" Because they tend not to come from ideas, they tend to come from words or phrases or images or something I've seen outside the window. That's why...who was it? Ed Hirsch came out here. I showed him my space. He sat at the desk and said, "I couldn't write here. All I'd do is look out the window." Well, it's true, I spend a lot of time looking out the window, but that's just my way of inviting what was outside into the poems. Those kinds of things are what occur to me as language. Somehow, the lens of the writing studio, the lens that is my eyes and imagination and language can convert what it is I see into some kind of a phrase that's useful and I can build with.
DB: Okay. You move from the Moleskine notebooks into this notebook. Could you describe what the notebook is?
RW: Yeah. What do they call these? This is the "Gemstone Collection" and this is mostly what I've been using for the last 20 years. I was teaching at the University of Oregon for a year and the graduate students bought me one of these, and I loved it so much that I've been buying these ever since. That's when I really start getting movement toward a poem to happen, and it used to be, as I said, whole poems would happen in those notebooks. Now, it can be a stanza, it can be 20, 30, or 50 lines, if it's a longer thing.
When I'll get impatient with the sort of the slowness of the process writing—I always write in pencil—I'll go to the computer. Or, I'll get stopped. I won't know where to go. I mean, you know what this is like. You're just, "What's the next thing that happens in this poem? I don't know." Somehow converting the hand written text to text on the computer screen—and it was with a typewriter, even before—can allow you to see things about its structure or about its movement that you might not have seen while you were in the midst of it. It's almost like the handwriting became something that swallowed me and I had to escape from the handwriting and put things down on the computer screen, let's say, in order to have some sense of what might come next.
DB: Before you were using the computer, you were using the typewriter in a similar manner?
RW: Yeah. I had an IBM Selectric. I guess even before that, I had some other kind of electric typewriter. I would type it up as far as I could go and then wait and see what would happen. Usually what that meant was that I'd take the poem out of the typewriter, as far as it went, and write it back down long hand in the note book but it would look different. It shaped it differently. Because looking at it on the screen gives it the appearance more of a kind of permanence, which is dangerous, I think. It would have been dangerous for me in the beginning, I think, to compose on a word processor or a typewriter because it might have given me this inclination toward a particular kind of structure that in fact would not have been as interesting or as evocative to me.
Now, I'm perfectly comfortable just looking at lines on the computer screen and saying, "Wait a minute, why are these lines the way they are?" And I am a compulsive syllable counter, even if, ultimately, in revisions, I wind up excising syllables or adding syllables. I like, composing say, a decasyllabic just to force me into manipulating syntax, to keep the right margin mattering, and somehow finding that way of moving the poem down the page.
DB: First question is when did you start using a computer to do these things? Secondly, was there anything that changed when you moved from typewriter to a computer? Was there a different feeling or a different sort of—? I mean you've said a little bit about this.
RW: Yeah. I think that in the beginning, and this probably would have been, let's see... I got my first computer in the Fall of 1995. This is the sort of computer that had a—which I still have; it still works—a Compaq, a little tiny "laptop," as we called them then, that had a minimal hard drive. I think I nearly filled it up. But I think I kind of used it, really, as just a sort of glorified typewriter with a little screen. It is black and white screen and there was nothing special as a piece of technology. I used it as a not so special piece of technology, kind of like a typewriter except that you can save it and go back to it, and find it just the way you left it and not have to type it completely in or not have to go from the typing sheet back to the notebook.
There is a kind of step that gets left out. That was the first time I started leaving out the step of writing by hand then going to the computer and then going back to the typewriter, then going back from type-written sheet to long hand. In a way I suppose the best thing I could have, the thing I thought was best about that part of the process, when the computer came along, was that it saved time. I could immediately just look at it on the screen, go back to longhand and then add what I had written in longhand onto whatever I had already saved on the computer.
But it kept me from writing everything back down and for a long time, I wondered about, "What I'm I missing there? What might I have not seen that I would have seen if I had been writing in longhand?" I used to say things like, "The reason I keep writing longhand or printing actually, I print the stuff, is that it allows me to feel the shapes of the letters themselves." It allows you to dispense words incrementally and syllables, not that the typewriter or the computer is any different except that it is. You sort of hear the syllables more when you are writing it out longhand and you certainly feel them more when you are writing longhand.
Eventually, I began to see that and I think Kim was part of what helped me see that. She just said, "That's just silly. Why would that really change anything?" You know, you're right. It doesn't change much of anything. I began to be a whole lot more comfortable then with just moving from—in sort of one fell swoop—from the handwritten text, to the text on the computer, which I would then print out and then do extensive revisions on. Arrows, things crossed out—that sort of thing. Whole sections crossed out.
DB: Okay. I guess we can kind of move into sort of talking about revision generally then. You are talking about how you do revision now in the computer and the differences between you moving back and forth more with the typewriter. I guess, what were your practices when you first started? How did you kind of learn how to revise?
RW: That's a really good question. I tell the students, the graduate students, because they hate to revise. I said, "You can't hate to revise, you have to love to revise because that's, like, most of the job." If you hate to revise, it's like hating writing, because that's what writing is. I like to tell them my own experience, which was that when in the beginning, as it were, I didn't realize it but I preferred to have written to writing. I really loved the finished product, or what I perceived as the finished product, which is to say, the "file" draft of the poem. That's the part I loved most.
Somewhere along the line, I began to prefer the process to the product because that's the place where all the excitement happens. That's the place where you surprise yourself. The process of revision is certainly made so much more fluid and swift with the computer than it ever could have been with writing longhand and then moving to the computer. It's so easy to drag and drop, to cut and paste with a computer that it is sort of staggering to try to remember what it was like getting together a book manuscript.
My first book manuscript that Penguin published, that was all typed on a typewriter without page numbers, which are then penciled in. I thought about winding it all in the typewriter, typing-in page numbers, but I thought, "This is insane, it'll drive me nuts." I had handwritten page numbers on it when I put together that book manuscript. And now of course it's just such a breeze that a computer will automatically do all that stuff for you. I don't think that it changes much about the way I compose, but there are some, I think... That is a big bug.
There are some great advantages about seeing it on the screen in the computer. There is a poem in Anatomy of Melancholy that is...let me find it. It's called "Earthquake Light." Let's see. It's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven...eight tercets. So, it's 24 lines. Originally, in the first draft of this poem, was the only draft of this poem that was in six quatrains. Not much was different about it. If you look at it, when it was divided into quatrains, more or less the same structure that it is now, the first quatrain ended with a period. That is to say the period at the end of what is now line one, stanza two. I looked at it on the page, on the computer screen for a long time before I realized that, "Wait a minute, I sort of liked the idea that the first quatrain ends with a period, which sort of establishes this undeniable hardness of the quatrain as a structural unit."
But then I thought to myself, "What happens if I break this into tercets because it the same number of lines. I can break it into a different number of tercets and still have the poem be comprised of the same number of lines." It changed everything about the poem, having that poem broken into tercets instead of quatrains. That was so easy to do and so easy to examine, to test, with a computer. Let me just backspace here, space here, return here—I just did that, looked at that: "Okay. Bingo!" That sort of thing I think is one of the great things that that part of the technology of the computer helps to facilitate. It allows you to see those possibilities. Shit, if I'd have had to completely retype the thing in tercets, would have I done it? Probably. I would have done it, but it would have been a much more arduous thing, and it might have not occurred to me simply because the little voice in my head would have said, "You don't want to type that again." That, I think, is one of the great things about the technology.
DB: I guess what sort of mode is your revision? There is a phrase in one of the books I'm reading: "What is your primary mode of textual change as an English woman?" She was sort of describing sort of T.S. Eliot versus Pound; T.S Eliot being the sort of subtractive and Pound being sort of creative and more and more... or there is also a sort of substitute sort of mode as well. Does one of those fit your mode or is it...?
RW: Oh, I'm subtractive. Absolutely. If she weren't so old and weren't taking care of my father 24/7, I would have my mother who always embroidered, embroider me a little sample that I can hang on the wall that says, "Cutting is virtue" because it is, and I think I may be part of the lineage of poets who sometimes can't shut up. I love Dryden, I love Pope but I can only take them for about 100, 200 lines of time and I got to go lie down because they just did not know when to be quiet. They did not know when to shut up and they needn't have to. Who I'm I to talk about them that way? Except for the fact that I look at—even in poems of Pope's—and think, "If this had been cut by about a third, it would just be a lot more friendly." It would just be a lot less boring quite honestly. It may not have been boring. It is not still boring to a lot of people, but I think it's one of the reasons that people like Pope probably aren't read—except by academics—as they once might have been, because there is just so much of it. Maybe being sort of in that lineage or of that sort that people tell me all the time, "You write long poems." No, I don't! The longest poem I've ever written has been like 400 lines—that's puny, but I've cut... The longest poem in Beautiful Country is 220 some odd lines, and it was 800 lines long in early draft. Most of those, I would print off a long draft and then just start cutting. And I cut 600 lines.
DB: Which poem is that?
RW: It's called "American Fear."
DB: Okay. When you are revising is there an intension behind the revision and along with that, are you revising towards... like is it driven by sound? Is it driven by theme? Is it driven by structure of the poem in general or by meaning?
RW: Certainly sound figures into it. Basically, I'll see or hear opportunities to let the poem go someplace else it might not have gone basically because I hear a particular sound that appeals to me or see the possibility of substituting a word in a subsequent line. It can pick up that sound. I call them "sound linkages." A lot of people do, I think Ellen Bryant Voigt was the first person I ever heard use that term. Sound is for me a compositional tool. I have something called the rule of the rhyme. When I make a sound that I particularly like or feel is evocative in a line, I want to make that sound again within the first three or four syllables of the subsequent line just to see where the poem goes, just to see where that sound takes me inside the poem. I forgot the original question, how the hell I got here.
DB: Is there an intention behind the revision or you just sort of follow?
RW: I think in sort of the most fundamental way I'm looking for clarity without clarity, but with a kind of evocative simplicity. I don't want poems to be boilable down to a kind of theme and I'm not interested in poems that can be said to be "about" something. Sure, they are about something, but what they are really about is something much more than that particular something. What I'm looking for is to get at that particular something, not so much the thing as the other thing. Tony Earley, the fiction, nonfiction writer talks about all great writing being about the thing and the other thing. It's the other thing that interests me a whole lot more than the thing. In the drafting process, I'm dealing with the thing. In the revision process, when I get seriously down to revision, I'm dealing with the other thing. How can I make what this poem is after? That "what" is frequently several different "whats". So, how can I make those things all work together?
DB: Has your relationship to that sort of idea changed over your course of writing or has it been somewhat constant in that? Like, once you heard him talk about it, you are like, "Oh right. That's what I've been doing."
RW: Hold on to say okay. Ask the question again?
DB: You are talking about the thing and the other thing. Is that something that once he said that to you, you sort of realized that's what you've been doing all along or is it something that you came to be practicing and before you were doing something else?
RW: I think it was something I've been doing all along without really having that sort of a simple way of explaining it or a simple way of seeing it. But I was always after that. I mean, I was interviewed by a young woman in Scotland who asked me if I could talk about what she said were my two or three dominant themes and I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what those are." And we wound up with the long edge talking about my discomfort with the idea of theme, because it's just the way it sort of circumscribing what the poem is after, drawing the line about what the possibilities of the poem might be, a line around that, and I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the poem being as big as it can possibly be, having as many possible readings, if you will, as it can have. Maybe as many possible readings as there are readers.
DB: What role do other people play in the process of your revision? Do they play a role?
RW: Not a whole lot. Kim is my principal reader and she knows me so well that she can tell when she needs to be supportive and can tell when she needs to be mean. Sometimes, you just need to have a kick in the pants. But she's also the one who says, "Okay, here's where you need to open it up, right here, right in this spot," and she's almost invariably correct. "Oh yeah, you're right. I need to develop that spot. I need to go somewhere else. I need to bring some other kind of image, some other kind of a reference." The poem, as Dick Hugo would say, is...you need to write off the subject in that spot, he would say. I always call it "Just bring in a Buick," which is my own figure for it but that's what I do. Just find something extraneous—seemingly extraneous—to bring into the poem so I can open it up here.
DB: Okay. So you don't, like, send your poems to other writers or have anything like that?
RW: I have a couple of friends that I will send poems to on occasion. Dorianne Laux has looked at poems for me, and Henry Carlile, who lives over in Portland, a wonder poet. On a couple of occasions, Phil Levine has looked at some things for me. But mostly no. I don't have that kind of network of other writers.
DB: And in these sort of unusual circumstances, what drives you to sort of send a poem outside?
RW: It will be a poem that, for some reason or another, I'm uncertain of. The example that occurs to me is that a long sequence of poems called "Earthly Meditations," which originally appeared as kind of little prefatory sections in each of the four parts, and then a fifth envoy, sort of the organizing poems in the book Reign of Snakes, which is a very sound driven, intensely meditative poem that I wrote. I was on a Guggenheim when I wrote that book and that was the last poem—that big poem that went into the book because something is missing. I knew something was missing, but I didn't know what it was. And right in the middle of the book was this other long sequence, called "Reign of Snakes."
I had this one poem which was actually the first part of "Earthly Meditations." I took it in to show it to Kim and she said, "Okay, the stanza here needs to go, but you might want to consider just writing more of this and see, because I don't feel it's done." So I wrote—it was 500 some odd lines long, this sequence—over the course of, like, two weeks. While I would do it, I would go out and I played Dylan Thomas on the CD player. I'd just listened to him say all this "gorgeous nonsense" as Auden called it. Or I'd read Plath, or I'd read The Book of Nightmares. Mostly, if there was a model for that poem, it was Roethke's "North American" sequence, a very much nature-driven sort of thing, and highly musical.
And then when I finished it, I knew what I wanted to do with it, and use it as sections throughout the book. Actually, that was Kim's idea too. I couldn't write without her. I didn't really trust the poem.
It was not like anything else I've ever written so I sent it to Dorianne, Henry, and Phil, and a couple of other people, just to find out, one of whom, Henry—who was a student of Roethke's—it was too close to Roethke for him. He didn't want me to do it. Everybody else said, "This is the best thing you've ever written. You just got to keep writing more like that." People keep telling me to go back and get that voice again and do more. I keep saying, "I've already done it. I don't want to do that anymore." But I do have those people. I hadn't used any of them. Henry, a couple of times, since, but that's about it. I have this writer in residence, who is extremely helpful.
DB: So you're talking a little bit about how this goes into a book and everything. I guess I'm wondering if you can sort of delineate a difference between how you revise an individual piece and how you revise a collection of works, and maybe talk a little bit about how that has changed over the course of your career?
RW: Yeah, you know, it's such an ongoing thing with individual pieces. A lot of times, I'll publish a poem in a magazine and I'll go back in and think, "I want to change this," and I'll change something. I'll fiddle with things a little bit. I don't think there is anything particularly holy about the fact that it appeared in print in one way—I can tinker with it. But then I find, when I start assembling a book—I mean, I still do this the old fashioned way; I don't think there's any other way—get all the poems I think might comprise the poem, and I lay them out on the floor. But then that act of laying them out on the floor and finding, say, "Okay, this batch of 10, 12 poems sort of goes together - You can see there's some connective tissue between them."
Then I've got to go back and start making—I have a system of little arrows and checks and numbers and so forth that show me opportunities to tie those poems together. If I write as in, say, Anatomy of Melancholy—a book that is into four sections—then I have to find a way to connect the sections together so that the assemblage of the sections is part of the assemblage of the whole, of course, but the assemblage of the whole and the sections they're in becomes, also, part of the revision of the individual poems as I find ways to stitch those things together into the larger fabric.
DB: Okay. That has been consistent throughout, you think?
RW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Certainly from my second book. My first book—which Copper Canyon published in 1979—was my MFA thesis, basically, and when I find copies in bookstores, I buy them. I'm not embarrassed by it, but boy—it's really beginning work. I think in the Selected Poems, I used maybe three poems, and even then, I think I could have left them out and it wouldn't hurt anything, but my editor said, "No, no. You've got to have something." Beginning though with the second book, Moon in a Mason Jar, that's been absolutely the way I've operated. It's gotten complicated with two of the books. My third book, What My Father Believed, and Beautiful Country, are volumes not divided into sections so that in each of them, it seems more all of a piece, somehow, and those required a lot more movement. I don't know how I could have done it without the computer, moving poems in different locations throughout the text and finding ways to maintain a kind of a seamlessness, but not a kind of overwhelming sense of there being an arc, because really, it is a collection of poems. If there is an arc—boy, it's a very pale arc, at least in those two books of mine.
DB: You said something about a system of arrows and numbers. I was wondering if you could maybe go into the nitty-gritty of that?
RW: Well, it has to do with page numbers ,overall. I'll have the draft and I'll put page numbers on them. I'll just have an asterisk and 7, which will mean, "Look for the asterisk on page 7," or a check and 118—"Look at 118." And I'll have another check so there are a couple of spots in a couple of poems that correspond that can allow me to make a stitch here that connects those two things. So across two or 50 pages, there's a kind of communication that's going on through the whole of the manuscript.
DB: And you just combine them all into one Word document on your computer?
RW: Mm-hmm. And before then, when it had to be typed up, it was really hard. So I had to do a lot of penciling-of-things-in. Somewhere, in those many boxes in the closet, in the basement, are drafts, work sheets—whatever you want to call them—versions of all of the books since Moon in a Mason Jar that sort of show that process, how that came about.
DB: Now that you do use a computer, do you find yourself making any changes in the collection once it's into a bigger file?
RW: Absolutely.
DB: Okay.
RW: It never really stops. Well, with Anatomy of Melancholy, I thought I had it exactly the way I wanted it, but the first poem in the published book used to be the last poem in the published book, and the last poem in the published book used to be the first. And they were that way because there's a kind of chronology there, in a way—the last poem in the book happens before the first poem in the book, if you know what I mean. So, chronologically, it seemed better that what is now the last poem happened first.
But I got to working on it and realizing that a lot of it had to do with form, too. The last poem of the book is a sonnet as it stands now, which seemed like a great way into the book, but in fact, it seems to me like a much better way out of the book. So I still make those kinds of changes and I drag my poor copy editor crazy at Penguin because I'm always, "Okay I changed this. You're right. That comma is probably confusing." Or, "I don't have a comma there, but by the way, I've added two more lines," or "I've taken out a line in it." And where does this ever stop, I think.
DB: So we're sort of on to how you organize—you move in from revision. You're always revising, but then you're also sort of moving into organizing the collection. Then, I guess once you're at that point that you've got published collections, you've got published poems, how do you kind of keep track of all of this stuff? Do you do it on the computer? Before the computer, I'm sure it was a little different than it is now. Or maybe that hasn't changed at all?
RW: I don't think it has changed at all. I mean, there was a time when I would create a file on the computer that was nothing but poems that had been published in magazines, say. And then I just got away from that and sort of went old fashioned on myself and just started writing it down and keeping them in the file. I don't know why I did that. It just seems like it was a lot easier to get to the hard copy somehow and look at them and read them than it was to call up individual poems out of a whole other file. To that extent, I guess, I discovered that I prefer the old and seemingly laborious manual method with seriously analog notation and keeping track of things. I mean, there's no doubt that for me, it has got to be a combination of the two. Even still, I've got pencils all over the place because that's what I need to write in these things with.
DB: Your other folder there that you called a thesis folder?
RW: Mm-hmm.
DB: When did you start using those? How did that come about?
RW: That was in Montana. Madeline DeFrees gave all her students one of those, which is a very sweet thing. I loved it. Rodney Jones actually talks about these things. The Harvard calls them "thesis binders." You can buy them in the bookstore in Harvard, and you can buy them in the bookstore in Montana, but I've had to order these online. They're also called "spring binders."
At Montana when I was in graduate school, if you didn't have a spring binder to keep your poems in, you just weren't shit. I mean, it was just spring binder, man. "I don't have one." "Oh..." So I got sort of interested in that particular thing way back then, and I've got, well, in those boxes, hundreds of them, and I've got a couple of old ones here—that one, held together with duct tape. That's a big one. I think that's one Kim retired from a prose manuscript so that I could do the selected poems, because it was sort of a fatty in comparison.
DB: How does it work? Does it clip in individual pages?
RW: No, it's got metal in here. This is not new. You have to squeeze it, so it's just a piece of metal in the spine.
DB: Oh okay.
RW: Then it's got this little—
DB: And then it's just individual pieces of paper made into a book?
RW: Yeah. It's just a pile. There's no particular order in this. These are all prose poems in stanzas, which is not possible, but I did it. And then back in the back, there's about that maybe poems that have already been published, and there might be few more in journals. Yeah, that's my filing. That's either things that have been published and therefore might be serviceable in a collection somewhere down the road or poems that are still under construction, and then there is kind of an intermediary thing although they are all jumbled together. I don't know which is which. I have to keep... See, I don't do this on a computer—
DB: Yeah—
RW: This is my submission notebook, where I submitted things, and acceptances. I've been doing that for years. I started in 1995 and, most recently, I sent a batch—where did I send those—the Georgia Review and Smithsonian.
DB: Okay. So we are going to go back here. We've seen the thesis binder, and you have then, like, years of them over there, and those are years of notebooks and years of thesis binders? How are you sort of organizing them, are you just sort of sticking them in one place?
RW: They're not in any, well, they are in a kind of order. They go most recent to the oldest on the bottom of the pile, but they get shuffled because I go back and pull them out. It really is a kind of storage, kind of information retrieval system, which just happens to be handwritten and old fashioned, because I love going back. I can go 25 years and pull out a notebook and sometimes make discoveries, you know? "This was interesting. How come I didn't finish this one?" More often than not, I wasn't capable of finishing it. I'd gotten on to something I didn't quite have the knowhow or the resourcefulness to find a way out of. Now, either I do or I've convinced myself I do. So, I get it back out and go to work on it.
DB: So, then the difference between—there're boxes as well, right?
RW: By the time I put stuff in boxes, that's pretty well committed to book. I'm not much interested in pulling things out. But that's one of the reasons why I have this tray down here—this wooden tray where things go in, then I'll bring another one of those manuscript boxes out. It usually holds 10 reams of paper. Before these things—this pile of thing—goes in to that box, I go through it poem by poem, or draft by draft. I don't organize them but I look for something—"Oh yeah, I forgot about this." Because sometimes it will be—I know it's on the computer somewhere but I don't even remember it.
If I just go to Word and open, it's just chaos, it's just a whole lot of files. Some of them are not called that anymore but I can do a search. I can type a line and do a search and find it somewhere. But I would not even remember what it might have been called unless I find something in this batch before it goes in the box. I try not to lose anything but keeping track of it, it's hard. I write a lot.
DB: How do you name your files and your folders and how do you organize your stuff on the computer?
RW: Minimally.
DB: Minimally? First line?
RW: Usually just the title and sometimes I'll have—I've got, like, just a poem called "Ant," and I've got "Ant 1," "Ant 2," "Ant 3," because I'm not sure which of those drafts I prefer. I kind of like something about them all. It maybe that eventually I'll get to a final version of that poem called "Ant" and eliminate the others, or I'll print them off, put them in a box, and eliminate them from the hard drive—just get rid of them so they don't clutter up or get in the way. But I'm not all that resourceful with the computer. I think that a lot of people are much more resourceful with it as a tool. I don't tend to do a lot of organization. It's just where I store individual poems for the most part.
So there is a poem under a particular title and that's it. Or, there is a manuscript under a particular title. Although now—and this has got particularly strange, because so many magazines are accepting submissions online—you find you have to assemble another file consisting of three or four or five poems to send, which also gets complicated. You have this other whole set of files. So I have individual poems here—I have batches of poems that have been submitted over here and after awhile, I'll just dump those.
DB: Just get rid of them?
RW: Yeah. I still got the other, I still got the poems.
DB: So the poem itself is the kind of master file, so to speak?
RW: Yes.
DB: Okay. You don't ever have like "Ant 2" or "Ant Revised" or anything like that?
RW: No. When I lose track of—I mean, most of these are two or three drafts. That's number one, number three. Mostly these first drafts are still around here but you can get back in here and find like four, five, seven, eight.
Then you go back from here and there will be, you know, draft number 22. And eventually, once I decide that that's done and it goes into computer as a kind of final draft, that's just the final poem as it stands there and I'll eliminate anything else that existed along the way, just to keep the old hard drive from being cluttered up, and just to make it easier to find things when I need them.
DB: No, that's one of the bigger challenges, trying to figure out what was done and how you did it. It's kind of bringing us to the end of this section of questions and I have some sort of more pointed questions about computer use and correspondence. I guess overall, do you see any distinct stages in your writing process? Do you see, over the course of your career, do you see, like, distinct shifts or do you sort of see it as a gradual change, or not change, sort of staying the same at some point?
RW: I think there was one huge sort of shift and that was when I moved from—actually, when I changed publishers. My second two books came from the University of Illinois Press and I had this kind of story book thing that happened. I gave a reading at a writer's conference at which there were—the president of Viking was there and the director of publicity, who is now my editor, who is famous. He edited Eat, Pray, Love. He's T. C. Boyle's editor, Paul Slovak. He was there and I gave this reading and the president of Viking came up and said, "Do you have a book?" I said, "Well, I got a start on one. I'm working on one." He goes, "Send me what you got." I sent him six poems and a title of what I perceived the book—this book—and three weeks later, I had an offer and a contract in an envelope and a delivery date. I called and I got the delivery date extended to six months, and bingo I was on.
That's sort of been the way I've worked with Penguin ever since—when I know what the book is going to be, when I have this sort of abstract, but never the less certain sense, that this is what the book is going to be, this is how it's going to work, what's it going to revolve around. This is what the title is. I'll send the editor an email and say, "Well, this is the book. It's going to be called Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems. I'd like to deliver in spring of 2012." "Okay," he says, and then they send me a contract. It's a pretty good deal but it's sort of a big shift because from that point on, I've not had to worry about finding a publisher, and that's just a great luxury.
I cannot pay attention to so much of the sort of the professional part of it. Where I tell my students, "Your writing is your life. Your publishing is your career. You live your life, you manage your career." Sometimes those things get so tangled up and for some people, they get tangled up, I think, much to their detriment, both on the life side—maybe less so on the career side—but they get it all knotted together. Not that way. I've just been lucky enough that it hasn't worked that way for me.
DB: Right. What book was this?
RW: That was called In the Bank of Beautiful Sins. That was the first one I did with Penguin. I've done six books.
DB: I guess my one question with that is does it seem—I mean, I want to use the word "organic" here—was it more organic when you just kind of wrote until you had a book and then presented it? Or actually is it different now that you kind of know that you are guaranteed, basically, of publishing it?
RW: Yeah.
DB: It's sort of a dumb word for this, but it—
RW: No, I know what you mean. Although I think that there's something even more organic for me about having the vision of what the book is in advance even before I've written some of the poems that are going to comprise that book, because it completely changes my focus. Once I know. I mean, people ask me now, "Are you working on a book?" "No, I'm just writing poems." That's a very serious distinction for me, and I'm not in any hurry to know what the next book is. I just published one less than a year ago, right? So, April? So, it's like seven months old. It's going to be a year or two before I begin to have some sense, and even then, I might just say, "I really don't need to be any hurry." Although Random House is now Penguin Random House and nobody knows what that means.
Random House publishes Billy Collins and nobody else. Putnam publishes Linda Bierds and Cornelius Eady and nobody else. Penguin's got a huge list. Knopf's a got a huge list. There is one publisher need for poetry lists: what's going to happen? I have no control over that, so I'm just going to keep doing what I do, and if things change? Bummer. Either that or not, I don't know, it might be fine. But I do think that it really has been, and it was that first incidence of seeing, "I got this great opportunity. Penguin wants to publish a book of mine. I can make this move to a New York house and I don't have a book manuscript yet, but if I can promise to have this book manuscript called this in such and such date, I'll have it." And it works so well for me. My first three books were Penguin, and all won prizes, but have cooled off. That they still love me but, still, I need to win another prize, I guess. Doing the best I can.
DB: That's an interesting point. I mean, when you have these deadlines, is it in some ways just that much more generative? You can't really have a block.
RW: No. My colleague, Brandon Schrand, says, "There is no such thing as writer's block." If you call a plumber, he's not going to tell you "I got plumber's block. I can't help you." We ought to be able to be as professional about it as a plumber is. I mean, that's facetious, of course, but Bill Stafford always used to say, "If you can't write, lower your standards." That's actually tremendously good advice too, because you lower your standards and it can open up in so many different ways. You don't really lower your standards. You quit trying to second guess yourself. You quit sitting down trying to write a great poem because that's a recipe for disaster.
DB: Absolutely, yeah. This sort of last group of questions is more specifically about computers and some of it is going to be repetitive. So if you've answered most of it you don't need to do more, but just do me the favor of repeating yourself if you don't mind. I think we can answer some of these. You began using computers on a regular basis—?
RW: Mid 90s.
DB: Mid 90s. You started using them basically just for like as almost as a typewriter. How did that sort of change? Were there things that became part of your life that you did more with the computer?
RW: I really did not start actively composing and composing—sometimes the bulk of the poem. And occasionally—this has not happened too very often—the prose poems. I just pointed out that prose poem in stanzas had to be composed on the computer, the whole of it. By which I mean I set the margins and allowed the word processing to determine where the ends of the lines were, but that also required that I not sort of run the line on too far before I begin what I felt was another stanza. My students accuse me of hating prose poems. I don't hate prose poems I just don't see the point. Which is probably ignorant of me.
There are prose poems I love but again, I've never really been interested in writing one until I sort of gave myself this challenge. "What if I allowed the computer to determine where the lines end but still found a way to make its structure appear as though it was verse and not prose?" That's what I did.
I think however when I first started trying to compose or do the bulk of the composition on the computer was after I was in this little space, which probably would have been somewhere around late 2008, maybe, and I started out just on a kind of a lark. "What happens if I come up here and sit down and make a poem in lines on the word processor?" I think I was on sabbatical then, too, as I am now. That would have been 2007. I didn't have much luck. I didn't have much luck making actual poems until all of a sudden, I did. That's when I decided to sort of convert myself to part time writing long hand and part time writing on the computer, and I've been very comfortable with that ever since.
DB: So about 2007?
RW: About 2007, I think that's when I really got started on it.
DB: You are sort of talking about this but I guess, are there any sort of techniques or formats that you were able to—well, you already sort of said this but—I guess these are the more sort of pressing questions. Do you think your using the computer has given you advantages over previous styles of writing? Conversely, what sort of disadvantages do you see?
RW: I don't see any disadvantages really. I have sort of worries about what it might do but at this point I can't quite bring myself to go back, mainly because I'm having, it seems like I'm having good luck, and part of that may just be that I've got to that point in my life in my career as a writer where I know a lot of tricks. I know how to trick myself. I know how to get going. I know how to get out of a lot of tight spaces. I know how to surprise myself or how to do those things that might lead me to surprise myself. I can do that on the computer and I can do that, I can get somewhere faster or so it seems. It might be an illusion but I don't think that it is.
If there is a disadvantage, I don't have—let me grab one of these. I don't know when this was... 1996. You can see, I don't do—I mean, look how neat that is. There is not a lot of—then there's a little bit more crossing out and stuff. I don't know what this is. There is a big chunk cut and sometimes there is a little bit more and all those kinds of things, but I don't—the major revisions even here probably began when I started converting it to a type print document. But I miss this sometimes. I go back and look and think, "How cool is this? This is sort of an interesting thing to have."
I'm not producing this anymore. And I worry about that. No one knows. If you're writing in hopes that your poems will last, that makes you pretty normal, but there is no guarantee. Everybody hopes that they might write something that might last, but you just don't know. You just do the best you can. But if there is a point at which one's work draws the attention of some kind of a scholar or somebody who is willing to study what you've done, documents like that are going to be really, really interesting because it was put on the page by the hand of the poet rather than just ignited electronically.
DB: So, there is no thought being sort of expressed on the electronic document?
RW: No. Some of the margins—in my own marginalia, on my own poems, there is a big question mark, but then there's other times, there's like notes. "Tools, tools!" I just saw a couple of others—"Egad!" I'll just pick it up and I don't know what it says. I don't have my glasses on. But yeah, making notes to myself. Sometimes notes in frustration. You know, "This is idiotic." I don't know what this says, I don't have my glasses. "Jesus!" Oh yeah, "Jesus! Just saw a truck get hit by the train!"
DB: Oh wow. Wait, Jesus did?
RW: No. I did. Jesus as in "Jesus!"
DB: You got somebody in one of your books being Christ, right?
RW: Yeah. There is Lucifer Doula, when his brother, Jesus Christ was born then.
DB: That makes more sense. I guess this is sort of simple, maybe overly simple, but does the internet play a role in any of your writing practices? Is that connected to the internet?
RW: Yeah. When I built the thing in 2002 I put an Ethernet cable, buried an Ethernet cable out. I am wired out here but I try to not stay connected very often because it's such an easy distraction. On the other hand, Kim and I enjoyed Scotland so much, I've been trying to get her to apply to go to the Castle at Hawthorne. Rochelle has been there. But then it turns out you can't—they don't want you to go as a couple and there is no internet. And Kim said, "Forget it" because she's a prose writer and she said—oh, and the NSA must have a file five feet thick on her because she wrote a novel about... She's downloaded maps of all the oil fields and pipelines in the Middle East. I mean, of course they're watching her. But all that came through the internet. It's a useful thing and I still use it every now and then. If I do wind up submitting a poem... I just sent a poem—right before we left for UK—to Paul Muldoon. You know, the only way to submit to the New Yorker is electronically. They're not interested in paper anymore.
DB: Even all the mainstream contests now are almost exclusively—
RW: That's good somehow.
DB: It makes it a lot easier for everyone, I think.
RW: I think so. I don't worry about the book disappearing and going to eBooks much. And if it does, all these books of mine are going to be worth a fortune. That's the way I look at it.
DB: We sort of talked about this, but when do you consider a piece of writing finished? Have these machines changed your sort of option on that regard?
RW: I think that it's just the same as the type print. I don't consider anything complete until I print it off and then send it off into the world. But when I did the selected poems both here and in the UK, I made some changes. Not big changes, but I made some changes here and there in poems. So, I don't consider them sacred ever. But mostly, when I'm ready to put it in a book it's finished. I'm just not going to mess with it anymore.
I had this talk with Terrance Hayes, whom I've known for a long time, since—well, he was never a wee boy, he was nine foot tall, anyway—he didn't want to read poems out of books at Albra. And we were both in England with Dennis Nurkse and Kathy Pollard—they were really the four Americans there. I said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." But I said, "But I got this Brit book. I've got to read from the book because the publisher is here. He wants to move copies." And he goes, "Yeah, you're right." He doesn't have a British publisher, so they shipped Penguin books over there. He goes, "I want people to buy it, otherwise they're going to ship them all back." So, we had to read poems from the books, and as he said to me—and I understand this absolutely at readings—"I'm not really interested in reading those poems." It's like once that book is out there, run along. I'm interested in reading and sharing what I'm working on and sort of testing it in reading situations.
DB: How do you feel about the security and fixity of your files? You have the backup. Does that pretty much alleviate most of your worries and you don't—?
RW: Yeah, I did. On this book shelf here there is a little piece of wood that functions as a book-stop, and it didn't use to have that. I had a big marble book end which I was sitting right here, I had my feet on the desk as I was reading and I heard something slide. I just turned just to see this 12-lb marble book end just crush on the laptop. I managed to get the hard drive up and retrieve everything, the hard drive was fine. It didn't hurt it, it just killed the mechanism. I'm not too worried about it. And then I also print things off relentlessly. Every time I get through a draft, and which is why I fill up so many cartons of paper. North Texas, those people who buy so many piles of writer's papers—especially Western writers—pay by the pound. So, you feel me? You aren't going to pay me anything for my electronic files. No, I'm printing these off. The paper is heavy.
DB: That's funny. I guess you talked about having an external hard drive before. What was that process like and were you more concerned about crashes and what not in the earlier days of computers?
RW: I think I was. I'm less concerned with the Mac. Somehow it seems, you know, I never have any issues with it. Whereas PC sometimes seem to kind of odd or they would be afflicted by some bug. That worried me so I had this 3/4 TB hard drive that, every time I came out here, I just plugged it in and it was on automatic backup. It backed up all my photographs as well as music and mostly all my files. While it was plugged in, it would backup every hour. It would just backup all my Word files. I still got that, I have to plug it in but it won't work on the Mac. I have to plug it in to a PC somewhere. It's out here somewhere. Every now and then I think I need to go buy an external drive for the Mac too just so I can back things up that way but then I don't because I do have a lot of paper. I got stuff in the cloud and I got stuff in Mozy so I feel pretty sanguine about the possibilities of me being able to retrieve something.
Now if a forest fire rips through when I'm gone and burns up the computer and all my boxes of poems and everything, then its Mozy or the cloud and that's it. And every place in the woods in this part of Idaho burns. It's not if, it's when. It hasn't been here in a long time but could be next July, August, or September, or October. Which concerns me, yes. That does concern me and I'd especially like to move all those boxes out of the closet if I get the write offer.
DB: Cedar closet, too?
RW: I need a vault.
DB: I have just a few more questions. I want to talk a little bit about correspondence and then a little bit about teaching. Do you correspond much now with other writers? I guess we'll talk about teaching a little bit.
RW: I do, and I miss—let's see. That's a letter from Phil Levine. He wrote me because I wrote him. And I've got a file in there, probably 1.5-inch thick, of letters from Phil Levine. That's almost all letters. But I probably write 10 letters, 12 letters a year now. I've got a few people who are really willing correspondents and write back. They still like the idea of letters. And I do too—I love getting letters. It's not like getting an email. But most of the correspondence is via email anymore, and I try to print those off.
I've got two or three letters from Billy Collins. I've known Billy for a long time too, but our correspondence over the last decade has been entirely electronic. All these abbreviated little snippets, which are hilarious, because he's very funny, tremendously witty, and he's especially good in letters, too, as well as in poems. So we have a great deal of fun. But they're all these little short snippets, which I find myself compelled to come out and print off—the whole thread of the thing, one email at a time—to snatch a page that long. But I want to save those things. Something about saving them electronically doesn't seem like saving them on paper.
DB: When did email start to become the sort of primary mode of correspondence?
RW: Probably around the turn of the millennium, I think, for me. It was so exciting at first being able to communicate so quickly. But then you realize what's missing. I can go back and look at—I got letters from Gwendolyn Brooks, I've got letters from James Dickey, Richard Hugo. I've got this wonderful file of letters which, if a forest fire burns through, they're gone too, I'm thinking.
DB: Bring those in, we'll scan them for you.
RW: But I do. A lot of the communications. I've got a file on one of my two email addresses. I get a lot of writerly emails on the U of I account because that's the easiest one to find. I've got a Gmail account that I just kind of keep private. That's my business file, and my personal file, or my personal email. I save all those communications from other poets, other writers but I don't print all of them off. Some I do. Some seem important enough to print off, others don't.
DB: That's your kind of line? If it's something that you kind of hold dear, you print?
RW: Yeah. If I get a particularly great letter. I published a poem in the New Yorker—well, it's in that issue up there, the Obama issue with O over the Lincoln Memorial. I've never had a response to a poem like that. It's a poem called "It's a Beautiful Country." Shit—what is it called?—"Exxon." I got 140-some odd emails from a lot of people I know. A lot of poets I know of but don't really know. A lot of strangers—vets, amputees. All of them positive. And all of that stuff, you know, I print it off. I've got a whole file of just those kinds of things. Just to have that kind of response to a poem... You gotta save that in hard copy, I guess is what I'm saying. I couldn't just leave those sort of loose on the net.
DB: Because they are not—
RW: Right. They're probably no more permanent now, given that I live in place that's likely going to have a forest fire, but they seem that way to me now. And it's easy enough to look at them if I should want to, which I have not.
DB: Did you have letters come to you when you were younger that were not email? Did that happen?
RW: Oh yeah. I've always got a couple of files in there just called "Fan Mail," where you get letters from people you don't know. But also sometimes I think that's the difference between two files, is one is people I know who sent me terrific poems and such and such, or then poems from complete strangers. I got another pile called "Crank"—I've gotten like four or five anonymous letters from some person who hates me in Boise. I don't know what's up with that. But I'm really kind of delighted by them. You can always tell—there's no return address, it's from Boise. It's always like, "Oh, it's that asshole again! What have you got to say this time?"
DB: That's kind of exciting.
RW: I told Phil Levine about it and he said, "You know you're getting somewhere if people hate you."
DB: Yeah. Has your style of writing these correspondences—I mean, once email became part of it, did it change your letter writing, too, or has it—?
RW: Well I mean it made letter writing almost go away. And I wrote a lot of letters. Letters were kind of the way I warmed up when I would get into my writing space here. Or in Leonor, I had another shack very similar to this, and it was how I warmed up—I'd write a letter to somebody, sometimes to my mom, but most often it was just another poet, another poet friend. I'd write him a letter, talk to him about poems, and maybe send him a couple of poems. When email came along—there's something about putting a poem as an attachment to send to somebody that seems like more of a violation. If you put it folded in an envelope with a letter, it's a much friendlier, more intimate kind of gesture than email is.
DB: Yeah. I understand what you are saying, but also it's surprising because in some way that should make it much more easily available for you to write to your friends and send poems.
RW: And of course it does. The last few times I've sent poems off to other people—I think I sent something to David Baker a few years ago just to get some feedback, and I sent those email. Last time I sent poems to anybody else to look at who was not Kim, I think I sent them email. So it's very easy to do that, it's convenient, but it's not as intimate. Or it doesn't seem as intimate. And why is it less intimate?
DB: I didn't actually ask you one question. I was interested in your sort of routine. Like, do you come out here in the mornings? Is there like set times or is it whenever? Or what's your schedule like?
RW: It's mostly whenever I can. I have long days, I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I took this job, that was my understanding—my teaching schedule will be Tuesday and Thursdays. I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays. I'm usually in by 9. I almost always have a night class, so I put in like 12-13 hours on campus Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday tends to be my campus day when I'm just doing regular office hours and hopefully, if I'm on a committee, I can get them to schedule meetings on Wednesday. If they don't want to do Wednesday I'll do Friday, but I'd rather have, theoretically, Monday and Friday. That's when I write. I get out here between 9 and 10—it varies. It depends on what else is going on through the year. If it's cold weather, I'll build the fire, get it warmed up, and maybe do a little email work to catch up, and then get started. And go in for lunch about noonish, 12:30. Between 12:30 and 1, I come back out and stay until about 5. That's pretty much been my routine really for a long time now, for 20 years. It's a pretty good way to work. It's a luxury to have time. It's an even greater luxury to be on sabbatical, or—as I envision it when I retire—permanent sabbatical. We'll see about that. We'll see how that works.
DB: So, I guess the last, sort of, questions. With teaching and the sort of advent of the computer coming into your teaching, how did that sort of change your day to day life? There is much more access to you, but there is also sort of more barriers. I don't know?
RW: On the negative side, yeah. You're available. You are sort of at the end of this electronic tether. You can't get away from students that way, but my students tend to be pretty aware of what I'm up to. But there are certain things they just got to know about, and sometimes, "Can we meet tomorrow? I know you're coming. I know you've got office hours. I don't know if you've got any time between 2 and 3. If I can stop by could we look at these two poems?" There is an attachment with a couple of poems.
That's the downside—that they don't have to call you, they don't have to make an appointment or come by. They can just ask you and there you are at home, and you respond, and I do. It's also great though, because they can do that and it's a whole lot more convenient. "Sure. I've got the poems now. I could read them tonight. I'll talk to you about them tomorrow, come in at 2:30." So it's both. Mostly I think it's positive. Mostly I think it's good. I'm on sabbatical, and Kim is not on sabbatical. She worked out being gone for 13 days while we went to the UK. When we were at Aldborough, all she did was correspondence with her students. She was doing it, like, while we were there for four days. She did nothing but. She never did get to see much of Aldborough because of that and everybody else at the festival thought my wife was a myth because she only came out once.
DB: Do you see like the sort of—I mean call them what you will, but—the more computer adept, those who have been raised, the "digital natives" or whatever, have they sort of changed your relationship to computers? Their sort of comfort and use of it, has that sort of done anything to your own teaching or your own sort of writing in that way?
RW: Teaching maybe in so far as... What I love, especially in graduate classes—especially in things like the techniques class, which I'm teaching in the spring in which we'll be talking about a different volume of contemporary poetry every week—we'll have a good 2.5-3-hour discussion about this book of poems. How the book works, how the individual poems work, how this particular poet does his or her work. It'll be great, it'll be invigorating and I'll come home and I'll immediately think of like 37 different things I should have said or ways to connect things that they said and sort of bind to our conversation together. And the email—I'll just do a class email and just, with bullets, say "Here's this and this and this." I can add two or three links—the things they need to consider.
That was one of the great things about the internet. I taught—I don't remember what the class was called. It was an American Lit class. English 570. Studies in American and English literature, I think it was. But anyway, 20th Century. And I taught Hart Crane. I taught "The Bridge" and they both despised Hart Crane because it's not easy and it's a failed epic, God bless him. But we had a wonderful discussion about what qualifies his failure and ambition and so forth, and I was able to send them the follow up email that tried to bind the class discussion together with all sorts of references and links to other things they could read about Crane. I mean, it's a great pedagogical tool that way.
DB: Right. I think I've exhausted it. Unless you have any other—? I think we've covered pretty much everything I want to cover and we have a good sense of your writing process. Is there anything that you—I mean you're writing letters in the earlier part of your career to get warmed up was sort of interesting to me. Do you do anything specifically to get warmed up now? Do you read?
RW: Actually I write sonnets.
DB: You write sonnets?
RW: Yeah. I probably have 100 sonnets. I think I've published 2 in books. But I love the form. The form is very friendly to me and they're mostly sort of hybridized. I like the Italian octave. I like ABBA, ABBA, and the kind of Shakespearian couplet at the end, or at least a kind of couplet and rhyme at the end. I'll sit down and I'll spend the first two hours just kind of messing around with a sonnet. I don't really need—it's like with a sonnet, I don't need an idea. I just start putting words on paper. It will have to do with the frost, it will have to do with the—I think it's gone. Anyway, I can see sort of the paper, but a bald-faced Hornet's nest about this big around up on the tree, and I think I've gotten three or four what I call "wind sprint sonnets" out of that thing. Just looking up and watching the hornets going about. Which, at some point this winter, I need to take the shotgun out and blast it out of the tree, out of the way, because next year it'll be this big. So, I don't want that.
DB: Where did you write those down on? In a notebook or are they—?
RW: Well no, I just sat down on a computer and started writing them down.
DB: Those are in the computer?
RW: Yeah. It loosens me up, get things going and sometimes I'll get halfway into it, I'll get 13 lines into one and then I'll feel a sort of desperation and I'll just finish it off somehow with a rhyme. It's not a successful poem. Like I said, I've only used—if I've got a 100, I've only used two. But it gets the wheels turning, and then I can turn here and I can start writing down lines. And it's often, not always, but something, some phrase or word out of that little sonnet—"wind sprint" as I called it—will be like, "Oh wait, there's a real poem in that phrase." So, I'll start from that. It's great. Great fun too. I do love sonnets. I should probably try to find them all. No, I won't. It's in the boxes, in the boxes, in the boxes.
DB: The future scholars will have many chores.
RW: Yeah, see if you can find them and see how many of them don't suck. I think there's two.
DB: There's two maybe. Thank you very much.
RW: It's my pleasure, Devin. It's great to get to meet you and—
DB: Yeah. I'm sorry I've been sort of reclusive I guess.
RW: No, it's okay. You've got, like, a job and stuff, too.
DB: Yeah, I do. A 9-5 and all that.
RW: Yeah.
DB: I think it'll be okay.